By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) The Cubs are back in the postseason.
We’re now in Year the Third of consecutive playoff appearances for the Cubs and a defense of a World Series title. (That last part still doesn’t feel like it’s actually real.)
But we’ve been to the top of the mountain and looked down. And it was good. Cub consumers — the loseriest, sad-sackiest bunch in all of professional sports until 11 months ago — were long consumed by just that one obstacle, the zit on the middle back that couldn’t be reached but that was toyed with enough to abscess rather than go away.
It was finally drained. Sweet relief, some tenderness and a soft spot forever to remember it by.
The 2017 version isn’t the team that struck fear into the entire baseball world last year, but the MLB playoffs are a funky animal and merely getting a foot in the door can be more than enough to end up with a trophy when it’s all said and done. There’s a foot in now, maybe not as comfortably as many thought the process would be back in the spring with basically the same cast that was in the World Series but with a full season of Kyle Schwarber and Wade Davis shutting it down at the end of the bullpen.
And so everything resets as it’s done the two prior years. 2015 involved a slap-your-mother nervous wild-card game followed by the watershed series against the Cardinals and their devil magic. 2016 was knowing the Cubs were the best team but being largely helpless against the cruel master of playoff randomness that involved being close to facing a Game 5 against the Giants that few expected the Cubs to win — including manager Joe Maddon — and a Game 7 of the World Series that was aided by a weather anomaly.
Who knows what oddities await these Cubs as they prepare for the Washington Nationals and then hopefully beyond? And yet as I type this, the biggest oddity is already here.
Like … what now? Everest has been climbed. To have a go at it again is cool and all, and these opportunities shouldn’t be taken for granted and blah blah blah. I’m excited, but … just … well, it’s different now.
“I am very young in my career and feel very fortunate to have a chance to go to the playoffs in my first three years,” Kris Bryant said Tuesday. “That is not to be taken for granted at all.”
If that doesn’t get the hairs on the back of your neck up, right? Bryant is always a pretty tapioca guy, superstar or not, but this is a team that just exudes a righteous claim to being here, the kind of attitude that isn’t really attitude but nevertheless is interpreted through They Live glasses by the in-vogue haters of the team everyone rooted for a year ago as signaling a smugness.
I found myself as angry as ever with the valleys that this Cubs team likes to dip into for a week-long stretch every month or more. It’s not that I’m jaded, I assure you, and in viewing Cubs fan Twitter all year, the fans are still quite capable of entering a world somewhere between laughing cynicism and stupid fatalism. Perhaps the former part is healthy — or at least a sign of the group not becoming insufferable Red Sox fans.
Maybe it’s the “sustained success” part that has me as ease right now. This is far from the last rodeo, regardless of outcome. And we knew in April that this team would win the NL Central. We knew when they scuffled and trailed the Brewers in the standings and allowed for a lot of dumb ink to again be spilled about “what is wrong with the Cubs?” We knew when the Brewers swept the Cubs two weeks ago to “tighten” this “race.”
Just like we knew all along last year that the regular season didn’t matter. It was all about October then, as it is now. But now I try so hard to not have a been-there-done-that attitude about this. I really very much super-duper want the Cubs to win the World Series again this year. I want a dynasty.
To quote John the Savage from Brave New World: “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
Playoff baseball is all of that.
Is it then wrong to not fear the Nationals, though they could easily sweep this Cubs team? Despite the Dodgers having a dominating trip through the regular season a la last year’s Cubs, a big part of me assumes they’ll be a letdown, which is foolish but not anymore than assuming sure things in the postseason. This is where my mind goes in these waning days of being able to say, “The Cubs won the World Series.”
This brave new world of Cubdom poses a danger of complacency, the comfort of laurel-resting. I hope I never find myself in such a way. Cursing from my couch in the ninth inning of the loss in St. Louis on Tuesday night suggests I’m safe for now. At the same time, watching Anthony Rizzo giggling on the top step of the dugout with Tommy La Stella and Leonys Martin as they half-earnestly cheered on Javier Baez in game’s the final at-bat, the “Now what?” become a little clearer.
What we know, we know. What they can control, they will. The rest is a choice of laughing or being stressed. So I laughed with those Cubs as Baez went down swinging Tuesday, knowing the Wednesday clincher and more meaningful baseball was coming.
Talk to me in a week, though, and I’m sure I’ll be gibbering, nervous idiot. More so than usual, that is.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.